Film

Eighties Martial-Arts Comedy ‘Dreadnaught’ Is an Irrepressible High-Wire Act

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Martial-arts comedy Dreadnaught — screening as part of Anthology Archives’ exemplary This Is Celluloid: 35mm series — is a bizarre, imaginative kung fu film whose talented cast helps transcend its clashing generic conventions. Dreadnaught‘s plot primarily concerns two tangentially related threads: Nebbish dry-cleaner Mousy (Yuen Biao) begs legendary historical figure/community leader/martial artist/physician Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) to train him, while hotheaded killer White Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee) hides from the cops in a Chinese opera company.

White Tiger’s tense murder-mystery narrative sometimes doesn’t seem to belong in the same movie with Mousy’s broad, lighthearted humor. But Dreadnaught‘s combinations of mystery and comic elements are winningly eccentric and consistently charming, like the alternately loopy and overheated back-alley chase that uses subjective p.o.v. and hyperactive handheld camerawork to show events from both White Tiger’s and Mousy’s frenzied perspectives. Every other scene is a rollicking set piece: There’s a hysterical acupuncture consultation/brawl, and a gymnastic/laundry-drying session.

Yuen Biao and Kwan are so comfortable in their manic roles that they make the film’s breakneck pacing feel like an organic extension of their harried characters, as in the climactic four-man lion-dance competition that ends after two men are set on fire, and two others balance on top of a rickety pyre of interconnected wooden benches.

They have such chutzpah that they make it impossible to resist Dreadnaught‘s crazed high-wire act.